Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush he could not account for all of Moscow’s nuclear weapons at the same time al Qaeda was seeking to purchase three Russian nuclear devices on the black market, former CIA Director George J. Tenet said.
In his new book, Mr. Tenet states that shortly after the September 11 attacks, Mr. Bush briefed Mr. Putin about a Pakistani nongovernmental group, Umma Tameer-e-Nau. The group, whose members included extremist nuclear scientists, was helping the Taliban and al Qaeda develop nuclear arms.
The president “asked Putin point blank if Russia could account for all of its [nuclear] material,” he states in his book, “At the Center of the Storm.”
“Choosing his words carefully, the Russian president said he was confident he could account for everything — under his watch,” Mr. Tenet stated, noting that the deliberately ambiguous response tended to confirm reports of nuclear smuggling shortly after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Tenet said the CIA informed Russian intelligence about former Soviet nuclear scientists who were working with al Qaeda.
Russian officials “refused to delve into any matters related to the security of their nuclear facilities and nuclear weapons, including reports sourced to Russian officials concerning possible theft of Russian ‘suitcase nukes,’ ” Mr. Tenet stated.
The comments contradict Russian government claims for the past 16 years that no nuclear arms were missing.
Alexander Lebed, a former Russian national security adviser, stated in 1997 that Russia could not account for about 80 portable nuclear weapons, a claim later denied by Moscow.
Mr. Tenet disclosed the presidential exchange in explaining detailed intelligence reports from late 2002 to spring 2003 stating that senior al Qaeda leaders were “negotiating for the purchase of three Russian nuclear devices.”
The former CIA chief identified the al Qaeda nuclear procurement group as including No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri and Abdel al-Aziz al-Masri, who is described as the “nuclear chief” for the terrorist group.
The disclosures in Mr. Tenet’s book are generating criticism from people who say some meetings and dates described in the book are inaccurate.
Kenneth deGraffenreid, a former senior intelligence official, said the book cannot be gauged for accuracy because the CIA continues to withhold a critical inspector-general report on the agency’s pre-September 11 activities.
Michelle Van Cleave, a former high-ranking counterintelligence coordinator, said Mr. Tenet’s book and its “kiss and tell” format are more than “bad manners.”
“Insights into how decisions are made — the thought processes and confidences and personal traits of our senior leaders — are real intelligence jewels,” she said. “Our enemies hunger for these kinds of insights. Of all people, George Tenet knows that. He at least could have waited until the president was out of office before baring his soul.”
Intelligence officials said the book inaccurately quoted Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Tina Shelton during an August 2002 meeting at the CIA, falsely claiming that Miss Shelton said connections between Iraq and al Qaeda were an “open-and-shut case.”
Officials who were present at the meeting said the statement was never made.
CIA spokesman Mark Mansfield praised the book as an accurate depiction of Mr. Tenet’s “service and leadership at the CIA during a time of great intensity and challenge.”